In a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled on June 30 that a requirement under the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, that required family-owned corporations to pay for insurance coverage for contraception is a violation of federal law protecting religious freedom. The Supreme Court heard the cases: Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, No. 13-354, and Conestoga Wood Specialties v. Burwell, No. 13-356.
The decision was hailed by numerous churches and religious groups. The decision may open the door to challenges to Obamacare from other corporations claiming the healthcare reform violates Constitutional guarantees of religious libery. The requirement had been challenged by two corporations whose owners say they try to run their businesses according to Christian principles. They are Hobby Lobby, a chain of crafts stores, and Conestoga Wood Specialties, which makes wood cabinets.
Writing for the majority on the court was Justice Samuel Alito. He wrote, "“We hold that the regulations that impose this obligation violate RFRA, which prohibits the Federal Government from taking any action that substantially burdens the exercise of religion unless that action constitutes the least restrictive means of serving a compelling government interest.
In holding that the HHS mandate is unlawful, we reject HHS’s argument that the owners of the companies forfeited all RFRA protection when they decided to organize their businesses as corporations rather than sole proprietorships or general partnerships. The plain terms of RFRA make it perfectly clear that Congress did not discriminate in this way against men and women who wish to run their businesses as for-profit corporations in the manner required by their religious beliefs.”
The health care law required many employers to provide female employees with comprehensive insurance coverage for a variety of methods of contraception. The companies objected to some of the methods, saying they are tantamount to abortion because they can prevent human embryos from implanting in the uterus. Providing insurance coverage for those forms of contraception would, the companies said, make them complicit in the practice.
The companies, however, had said they had no objection to other forms of contraception, including condoms, diaphragms, sponges, several kinds of birth control pills and sterilization. The Obama administration had previously offered exemptions for the companies involved.
Approximately one third of Americans are not subject to the contraception mandate. For example, smaller employers are not required to provide health insurance. Religious employers, such as churches (narrowly defined), were also exempt prior to the court ruling. However, the Obama administration asserted that for-profit corporations such as Hobby Lobby are bound by the law to provide contraception coverage.
Hobby Lobby and Conestoga challenged the Obamacare requirement under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. That law came in response to Supreme Court decision in 1990 that declined to recognize religious exceptions under the First Amendment’s free exercise clause to generally applicable laws. Congress reversed that decision. When he signed the bill, President Bill Clinton said “What this law basically says, is that the government should be held to a very high level of proof before it interferes with someone’s free exercise of religion.”
The companies argued that the coverage requirement imposed a “substantial burden” on religious practices by subjecting Hobby Lobby to fines of $1.3 million a day if it chose not to offer comprehensive coverage. Other fines could have amounted to $26 million a year.
The Obama administration argued before the Court that requiring insurance plans to include comprehensive coverage for contraception promotes health and ensures that “women have equal access to health care services.” According to the government, physicians rather than employers should decide which type of contraception is best. The pro-abortion Guttmacher Institute had argued that some women cannot afford the most effective means of birth control and that the mandate would actually reduce unwanted pregnancies and abortion.
The United Methodist General Board of Church and Society, along with the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, which includes the Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church (USA) and United Church of Christ (UCC), had endorsed the contraception mandate. Also backing the mandate were the president of the UCC, general secretary of the Reformed Church in America, the Episcopalian bishop of Washington, D.C., the president of Union Seminary, the dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School, and the president of Episcopal Divinity School, in addition to the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good.
Religious groups opposing the mandate are: the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, National Association of Evangelicals, Southern Baptist Convention, Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod, National Religious Broadcasters, and the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities. Speaking for the Institute for Religion and Democracy, Chelsen Vicari said on the day of the court decision, "Evangelicals everywhere should rejoice at the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to uphold American citizens' religious freedoms. Let this be a good reminder to all of us, that we must uphold a strong public witness for Christ and never allow our religious freedom to become gagged and bound in our sanctuaries.”
"It is imperative that we examine the ethics of abortifacients from a Christian ethical perspective. For the Religious Left, the willful autonomous individual, and sexual freedom, trump all other considerations, even the destruction of innocent human life," added Vicari.
Speaking for the Minnesota Catholic Conference, Jason Adkins declared in a statement, "A society dedicated to freedom and diversity must respect the freedom of its citizens to live and work in accordance with their religious convictions. As Pope Francis recently said: 'A healthy pluralism, one which genuinely respects differences and values them as such, does not entail privatizing religions in an attempt to reduce them to the quiet obscurity of the individual's conscience, or to relegate them to the enclosed precincts of churches, synagogues, or mosques.'" (Evangelii Gaudium, no. 255)